Image of James Webb Space Telescope

The Great Time Machine: James Webb Space Telescope

By Bernard Brandon Scott 1.31.2022

The launch and unfolding of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has fascinated me, almost to an obsession. I bookmarked NASA’s “Where is Webb?” web page and checked it daily, sometimes more often. I was anxious about the launch and even more so when the sunshade began to unfold its origami self and had to pass its three hundred and forty-four single fail points. If any one point did not work, the whole ten-billion-dollar project was over. And the unfolding of the golden mirror was yet to come. When I asked my friends what they made of the JWST, I got back “What do you mean?” So that forced me to ask why was I so interested. Why was I following it daily? Why did I watch NASA’s live coverage of the unfolding and tensioning of the sunshade? It was like watching paint dry. But watch it I did, compulsively. Why? Am I just strange? Well, probably.

In the Australian film Dish (2000) about the first moon landing, the main character, a radio astronomer, remarks that this was science’s chance to be daring. The JWST is science being daring on steroids. The telescope took twenty years to develop with many twists, turns, and even mistakes. It involved the cooperation of three space agencies: NASA, European Union Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency. A spacecraft should have as few moving parts as possible and lots of redundancy. To design a space telescope with three hundred and forty-four single fail points seems fool hardy, but it worked. It was a stunning feat of engineering. Its launch by the French Ariane 5 rocket from French Guiana was so perfect that it gave the telescope ten extra years of life.

Now the science begins. This telescope should be able to look back to the beginning of star formation in our universe. It may even find clues of other intelligent life in the universe. It will also surely discover many things we are not expecting and help us understand the future of the universe long after the human race will have gone extinct.

The JWST will continue science’s investigating, theorizing, and explaining the real genesis of our universe. And it will be more magnificent, wonderous, and amazing than we can imagine. The ancient cosmologies, including the creation story in the book of Genesis, are puny by comparison. A creation in seven days, a Babylonian invention, is limited to our time frame. The universe encompasses immense time scales and distances and demands a vast expansion of our imagination. It is truly a wonderous tale.

To expect from an Iron Age writing like Genesis an accurate or even approximate scientific account of the origins of the universe is a category mistake. People in the Iron Age did not have the tools to understand that the earth was not the center of everything or even the distance to the moon. Expecting Genesis to be scientifically accurate is like following Leviticus’ instructions for animal husbandry. Its creators were working out the meaning of life as they experienced it. Despite their experience of evil and chaos, they affirmed life’s goodness. Genesis, like other ancient cosmologies, is a myth. And what a powerful myth it is. The story affirms that the world is good, all of it, and has order. It lacks an evil demiurge. Given the chaos in which we now live, that message is worth hearing.

Iron Age humans created the Genesis story, as we in a scientific age create our new cosmology. Both cosmologies try to explain our place in the universe. Huge questions remain, but the quest goes on.

Pale Blue Dot image

Pale Blue Dot image

At the end of the Voyager 1 mission, as the spacecraft prepared to journey out of the solar system, it turned around to take a picture of what it was leaving. From that vantage point, on the outer edge of the solar system, our earth was a tiny, less-than-one-pixel blue dot in a sun beam. It looked like a speck of dusk. Carl Sagan remarked, “There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.” (See the video)

The story of our origins is both old and new, and yet the message remains strangely the same. In the Genesis account god entrusted the world to us and in a modern cosmology the earth is “the only home we’ve ever known.”

I will follow with interest and amazement the discoveries of the JWST and I will continue to study the ancient writings with which I have spent my life. Both journeys are fascinating, at least to me. I’m reminded yet again of Emily Dickenson’s little poem:

“Faith” is a fine invention
For Gentlemen who see!
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency!

I wonder what she would have made of the James Webb Space Telescope.

________

For the point of view of a scientist see Dennis Overbye, “The James Webb Space Telescope and a Quest Every Human Shares,” New York Times.

2 replies
  1. Andrew N Hunter says:

    I’m trying to reach Dr. Scott by email. How do I reach you, Brandon?
    Andrew Hunter
    PTS ’95

  2. Ann Lougee says:

    Thank you, Brandon, for this wonderful reflection. I share your passionate interest, Big Bang, to Iron Age, to future discoveries and cosmologies.

Comments are closed.